Sunday, March 22, 2020

My first pandemic

“Hmm,” observed my mom in a recent email, “Never been in a global pandemic before.” 

This is my first global pandemic too and, based on my experience so far, I hope it’s the last. Pandemics are no fun at all. There are roughly 7.8 billion people out there who'd probably share the same sentiment.

With almost surgical precision, and in a span of just a few weeks, the Covid-19 virus has sucked the joy from public society. No gatherings, no travel, no YMCA basketball. No concerts, no dinner parties, no hugs. Ugh. No eating out, no March Madness buzzer beaters, no random conversations with strangers. No high fives, no indoor ventures, no touching any surfaces. Fuck me.

I realize these might all be considered small pleasures in comparison to the big thing: staying alive. But still, ugh. It’s the minor comforts which are the spice of life. And right now they're all missing.

Friday I biked into town with my cameras to get a lay of the land. I’ve been mostly housebound this week —Governor’s orders!— and this was my first visit to Eugene’s city core in a few days. Most stores were closed and the general activity level was subdued, more like a sleepy Sunday morning than a Friday afternoon. Some people were out and about, but they kept to themselves.  Since I was on my bike, social distancing came naturally. I talked to no one. Once in a while I’d hop off my seat to take a photo, but I was mostly observing. More than ever I realize that a central requirement for seeing and making good photos —perhaps the only one, aside from good walking shoes— is a sense of optimism. And I haven't felt very optimistic lately. Every time I touch my phone or look at the news it's another visit to Debbie Downer. It's injected bad juju into the pit of my stomach. It’s there when I wake up and it stays with me most of the time until sleep. So I haven't made many photo outings lately.

Nosiree, pandemics are no fun at all.

My main question: where does this all end? It's very hard to know at this point. We're experiencing a watershed event on the scale of 9/11 or WWII, but it's taking place in real time over the course of weeks, with the situation in flux, changing daily. Gradually the noose tightens on public interactions, with this new restriction or that one, each one unimaginable just a few weeks earlier. I can't keep track of what's ok or not, so I'm mostly staying home. 

The old Fear Of Music lyrics ring true: "I haven't got the faintest ideaaaa...everything seems to be...up in the a-ir..." The only certainty is that however we make it through this pandemic —and I assume we will, although individual survival is not guaranteed for any of us— what’s on the other side is going to look very different physically, culturally, and economically. I keep hearing rumors through the grapevine of this local business or that business in trouble, friends out of work. Maybe they can hold on for a few weeks or months, but not indefinitely. Yesterday came the rather unsettling news that Powell’s Books was in trouble. If they go under, boom! That would leave a gaping cultural crater in the Portland landscape, bigger than Mt. Hood. In Eugene I have to assume many stores will not survive. Downtown is already sketchy, and the vacancies will spread. Incomes with languish. Foreclosures > unemployment > decay, etc. Not good. More of the culture will move online, which is perhaps just an acceleration of an inevitable trend. But the physical world will look quite different.

There will probably be some lingering effects too on interpersonal behavior. Social distancing may become more customary. Will handshakes and hugs become bygones? Will we think twice before approaching a stranger for directions? Will Eugene's vaunted friendly vibe fade away? Paranoia off and running.

I can't help thinking of cancer as a metaphor. A common treatment is chemotherapy. This basically poisons the cancer, but it's also poison to the body. Social distancing seems like the same sort of treatment. Kill the virus, sure. But you'll kill a lot of the culture in the process. Kill the restaurants and theatres. Maybe kill the economy too? Kill the health care system? Kill all social norms?

Sign on the door of my local camera shop Dot Dotson's

One saving grace amid the turmoil is that Spring is here finally. The past week in Eugene has been just fucking gorgeous, each day with blue skies and moderate temperatures. My family has been taking walks each day, and yesterday afternoon we even ducked into a park to meet some friends for a beer and frisbee. We kept six feet away from one another but it still felt a bit like cheating. Please don't judge me. We're all just trying to maintain some sanity. Considering the rain is in the forecast and that clampdowns on social gatherings are likely to tighten soon, I've got to take what I can get. Up yours, Coronavirus.

We've been watching some good films at night —The Swimmer, The Landlord, Headhunters, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and others from Leo's DVD collection. They're entertaining and weird and satisfying. But, regardless of when or who they were made, all feel like another era. There are so many scenes of humans in close proximity, and touching one another casually, and sitting in restaurants or dancing. I'm sure no one thought anything of it at the time. But to watch those scenes now...well, perhaps nostalgia applies? Or some other emotion? Exoticism? Jealousy? I can't quite tell.  

As has been my habit since childhood I've been plowing through one book after another. The past few nights it's been The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown. A fantastic book, which, um, happens to be about the Donner Party trapped in the Sierras. I know, I know, grim. But it's extremely well written. I have the general outline of what happened in my mind, so it's not suspenseful in that regard. But still it's a bit eerie to sit above them as Brown narrates their daily routines, and their slow plunge into catastrophe. They did the best they could. They were reasonably happy, for a time. No one could guess what the future held, not then or now.

If this post isn't too depressing and you want another dose of pandemic reaction, I'm playing a Coronavirus-inspired set of music tonight, 8-10 PM (Pacific Time) on KWVA, 88.1 FM in Eugene, or streaming online at This is my second show inspired by the pandemic. The first was a few weeks back and more light-hearted. Tonight's will be more somber, possibly soul-crushing. Listeners may want to get set first with a big shot of whiskey before tuning in. Stay strong and healthy. This too shall pass...


TC said...

"They were reasonably happy, for a time" would be a good book title.

Taiwan has done a relatively good job managing the virus so far, but people here are not adept at social distancing and it's making me nervous. So far, though huge gatherings are forbidden, events have been cancelled, temps are taken electronically at entrances, and most people wear masks, life here goes on as normal.

That could end up being a bad idea. We will see.

DD said...

Thank you.

CRW said...

It is definitely odd watching TV or film depicting the way we were... Adds to the hopefully temporary sadness. I just looked up that title on Amazon. $902.01 plus 3.99 shipping for the paperback. Hoping now that the local independent bookstores hang on so I can search their dusty shelves again soon.

Looking forward to your next communication.

Blake Andrews said...

$902.01. That must be a pricing glitch. I make it a point never to pay more than $900 for any paperback, so if you can't find it for under that I'd hold off. Oh wait, just checked and it seems available for under $10. Worth the money at that price.

Stan B. said...

"My main question: where does this all end?"

Decades from now when climate change is in full swing, this will be remembered as that quaint respite of a warning, back in the day when we could all relax at home with only one world wide catastrophe to deal with...

Vladimir Zharov said...

"the virus sucked" - it's beautiful

Marilyn Andrews said...

Just read "Mawson's Will", (thank you for the book), and it too is about survival while being alone and disconnected, though I admit that Antarctica is neither Eugene nor Arcata. There are little sparks of light along the way, we are nourished, but not from our usual sources. As you wrote, "this too shall pass."